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Putting Psychological Safety Into Leadership Context

| April 30, 2024

by MOR Associates

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Curtis Odom, MOR Associates Executive Coach and Program Leader. Curtis may be reached at [email protected]  or via LinkedIn.

Here we are! I am authoring my first Tuesday reading after 12 years with MOR Associates. If you know me, you know I am rarely at a loss for words. However, I wouldn’t say I like to talk for the sake of talking. And what you may ask is the topic that finally compelled me to write a Tuesday Reading? Psychological Safety is the answer. Allow me to first set a foundational grounding for what I mean by psychological safety, as the term has been thrown around a lot lately in the common organizational vocabulary.

Psychological safety is a climate where people feel free to brainstorm out loud, voice half-finished thoughts, openly challenge the status quo, share feedback, and work through disagreements together. As I thought about the angle I wanted to take for this article, I was reminded of a phrase I’ve repeatedly heard: bring your whole self to work. Psychological safety is also about examining the well-being of the entire person and understanding the well-being of the whole individual and every individual within the organization. When we talk about psychological safety, we’re talking about the climate of an environment where you feel safe to take those interpersonal risks without facing the consequences. You bring your unique self to the group and add to the diversity of any group. However, we can only be our whole selves if we feel safe to do so. Suppose we don’t feel comfortable to do so. When we have psychological safety, we feel connected to a group; when it’s not there, we feel like an unwanted guest.

An unsafe psychological culture can lead to rampant imposter syndrome. It causes people to feel like they are imposters in a dangerous environment, which impacts the productivity and quality of an organization’s performance. However, the potential benefits of fostering psychological safety are immense. In 2019, a Gallup poll found that only three in 10 employees strongly agree that their opinions even count at work. Contrastingly, teams with high degrees of psychological safety reported higher levels of performance and lower levels of interpersonal conflict. They also learned that high psychological safety reduces stress and anxiety, increases job satisfaction, creativity, and innovation, and improves mental health. These positive outcomes should be a powerful motivator for leaders to prioritize psychological safety in their organizations.

Imagine, for a second, that you’re a brand new employee who has just joined your organization. You believe you have been hired because you have brought new perspectives and ideas, and one of your first tasks after a few weeks on the job is to present to your peers some ideas you have for a current project that started before you arrived. You put together your PowerPoint; you’re ready to discuss this in front of your group. You begin sharing ideas you’re passionate about, and you hear people say, “That’s not going to work here,” under their breath. Or perhaps they say, “That’s different from how we do things here,” which is scarcely more polite. Maybe one peer rolls their eyes, you have another person checking their phone, and even after that meeting, as you leave, someone leans over and says, “If you’re going to make it here, you might want to rethink your attire,” which is the final straw. Imagine being in a situation like that and how that might make you feel. How could you show up the way you want to in that space? Psychological safety is the belief held by people within a set group that one will not suffer any negative consequences from taking interpersonal risks. It is a climate where we can take risks, like sharing a new idea in a meeting, challenging the status quo, asking questions, making a change, or even admitting a mistake without fear of repercussion.

This is also connected to psychological safety in hybrid and online work. The virtual workplace has forced us to redefine what we mean by engagement. In the early COVID and quarantine days, something needed to be fixed if you didn’t have your camera on and weren’t engaging every five seconds. And we’ve come to learn more and more when we have these online interactions. We now know that we as leaders must find new ways to allow people to engage in manners that suit them.

It could be through chat, breakout group activities, or the small talk we make when we are early to a virtual meeting and wait for others to join. Whether in person, hybrid, or online, psychological safety plays a role in how you show up to work, your enthusiasm for work, and your desire to do your job. So, all those things play such a role, especially when working with different people and having other senior leaders, people leaders, managers, and supervisors who adopt that inclusive leadership style.

As you are reading this right now, I am sure you have had experiences where you’ve had high psychological safety in a specific group and situations where you’ve had low psychological safety in a group. What does it feel like working in an environment where psychological safety is high, where you think you can take interpersonal risks without fear of repercussion? It feels empowering. Liberating. You’re respected for your contributions, and you’re willing to be creative. The words empowering, energizing, and freeing could be used. Now, let’s look at the flip side of that. What does it feel for you in those moments when you have low psychological safety? It’s overwhelming. Anxious, isolating, distressing, stressful, annoying, and demoralizing. These feelings factor into inclusive leadership, getting to know the people you’re leading and adapting to their style so they can succeed. And as a leader of people, we started to adapt to what that looks like for psychological safety and adapting to people.

So, how do you create a space and a place for psychological safety? You have to be able to connect and care about the people you’re leading because you care about who they are as an employee and as a person. Leadership is about connecting with people. Those connections allow you to care more about what you’re doing. It gives you the energy to create a psychologically safe space for your team and yourself.  If this is a topic you’d like to explore further, please also review Jim Bruce’s recent Tuesday Reading on this topic.

Last week, we asked which best describes your ability to say “no” at work:

  • 37% say “yes” way too much.
  • 30% say “yes” a little more than they’d like.
  • 20% feel well-balanced in saying “yes” or “no.”
  • 7% say “no” a little more than they’d like.
  • 6% say “no” way too much.

More than two out of every three of us feel we say “yes” to too much—that’s a lot! As leaders, what environment are we creating for our staff? Do they feel comfortable saying “no”? Given our role model, likely not. As we relate this topic to today’s reading on psychological safety, what might we do to create an environment without the felt need to overcommit?